MGF Reviews Ramones – It's Alive 1974-1996

Ramones – It’s Alive 1974-1996
Rhino Records (10/2/07)
262 minutes

This review is dedicated to the late Linda Stein. Without the efforts of her and her husband, the CBGBs scene might have remained in the Bowery. Let’s all hope that the cops catch whoever did this.

Why, yes, indeedy, I saw the Ramones live—it was in 1991 at a festival in Germany, and it was Joey, Johnny, Marky and C. J. They had the honor of closing the festival and did their usual magnificent job. Unfortunately, by this time, the live show had boiled down completely to formula. It was essentially a Greatest Hits package from a group that had no hits (at least in America). We in the audience knew the points to cheer, we knew the set would end with “Pinhead”, we’d cheer the dancing retard… formula may be comfortable, but it’s rarely exciting. The Ramones always did their damndest to make it exciting, though.

It wasn’t their fault that their shows devolved into this. They were frozen in amber long before this, after their audience didn’t take to the ambition of Road to Ruin and they ended up having their biggest hit single with their cover of “Baby, I Love You” from End of the Century (be sure to pick up Mick Brown’s recently-released book on Phil Spector; Brown’s relating of Spector’s obsession with Joey during the End of the Century sessions is scary, to say the least). Supposedly at Johnny’s instigation—and since he was handling the band’s business end by this point, we can assume this to be true—the Ramones decided to fix their image in stone: the leather jackets, Joey’s shades, the bowl haircuts, the slightly-watered-down version of their sound. They only diverted on rare occasions, like on the Dave Stewart-produced “Howling at the Moon” (still one of my favorite Ramones tracks). Since they didn’t change, their audience didn’t. It grew by attrition, with the old fans sticking around and new ones gained through incessant live touring and old fans educating new fans on the history of the group. Longevity of fandom was advertised by the group members’ names on their trademark T-shirt. And so it went for over two thousand live shows.

And so it went for their studio work as well. If you want to gauge a group’s influence by their first three albums, the Ramones rank up there with only The Beatles and The Clash. They’d done their best work prior to entering ossification, and the preservation had its positive aspects, presenting to the world a relatively pure example of a sound that literally changed the world of music (that concert in London on Bicentennial Day, July 4th, 1976, may have been the most influential single concert performance in history). There’s a reason why this group entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first year of eligibility, but it wasn’t soon enough for Joey, who was already dead from lymphoma by the time the induction took place.

Yes, the band has an interesting back story, especially in regard to the constant politically-oriented battles between Joey and Johnny. But those stories are presented on the group’s documentary End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones. Definitely get it; it’s terrific. But this double-DVD release by Rhino is here for a dual purpose: to remind fans who were there, like me, of what the group was capable of doing live; and to introduce to an audience that was too late to see them what made them so influential to groups like Green Day (two members of Green Day have named their children in tribute to the Ramones). And because of that second purpose, we have the weirdness of being presented with the Ramones in Dolby 5.1 Surround.

The disks are divided into two periods. The first covers 1974 to New Years’ Eve 1977 at the Rainbow in London—the famous It’s Alive concert, presented in nearly-full; unfortunately, three tracks from the set are missing, and the only available recordings are not of broadcast quality. The second disk covers 1978 to their last major concert in Buenos Aires in 1996. It’s a good division, as the show at the Rainbow has been celebrated as the quintessential Ramones concert.

The footage from a September 1974 concert at CBGBs is among the earliest Ramones footage available; LA punk artist Black Randy provided it to Rhino. It’s a very unusual show indeed. You can’t take your eyes off Joey as the group performs “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”. For the uninitiated in New York Music, you may think he’s attempting and failing to do a Mick Jagger impersonation. No. What he’s trying and failing to do is impersonate David Johansen impersonating Mick Jagger, attempting to connect the Ramones to the city’s previous underground music scene, dominated by the New York Dolls and Wicked Lester, who’d become KISS. He’s attempting to give his audience some context into which to place these short, fast, weird songs. Within a year, he wouldn’t need to do that, as CBGBs filled up with the strange and unique, providing a home for artists as diverse as Richard Hell, Debbie Harry and David Byrne. Joey would develop his own persona and presence, which would be a key part of the Ramones’ live appeal for the next two decades.

After the early CBGBs footage, the set fast-forwards a year and a half to Max’s (and footage provided by photographer/scene-maker Bob Gruen). A lot had changed for the Ramones in that time. They’d been signed to Sire and recorded their legendary first album. “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” from this set has a great blooper moment: Dee Dee shouts “1-2-3-4”, then Johnny realizes that his guitar’s unplugged. He stops the band, casually plugs in again, and they start. By this time, Joey’s rid himself of the faux-Jaggerisms and established himself as a dynamic singer. Dee Dee’s maturity on bass is evident from the incendiary performance he gives of the song he wrote about him being a male hustler, “53rd and 3rd”. This band was now definitely going somewhere.

And where they went was England for some shows. The adulation of the fans there and the realization that someone, somewhere understood what they were trying to do wrought another change in the group. Another show at Max’s from October 1976, after they got back, shows a new confidence in the group that they hadn’t shown before. Johnny is more solid on guitar, Dee Dee more crazy on bass, Tommy perfectly controlled on drums, and Joey well on his way to developing his front-man personality.

The maturity process is underscored by a nice selection from various shows in June 1977. The highlight of these shows is eight numbers recorded at CBGBs (in color). The group plays to the audience, they’re totally comfortable (as they should be; they’re at CBGBs, after all). If you ever needed an explanation why audience would grasp on to the nearest solid object when the Ramones played in order not to be swept away by the sheer velocity, just grab a look at the performance of “Cretin Hop” from this concert. It’ll tell you everything you need to know. There’s even a nice direct comparison here between the September 1974 concert and here, as both sets have “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” in them. The change in Joey is incredible, even given the three-year timespan. This group was ready to conquer the world. But the amber was already beginning to harden. That’s evident in this set’s first display of “Pinhead”, recorded at the Ivanhoe Theater here in Chicago during a June 1977 concert. The song doesn’t end the set yet, and there’s no dancing pinhead, but Joey already has the “Gabba Gabba Hey” sign. The performances of “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World” from the June shows and their tour of Texas the next month are disturbingly identical. However, they were still human at this point. Johnny has another case of unplugged guitar during a July 1977 show in Houston, and the group simply stops, totally lost, until the problem’s corrected, then slam into “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment” again.

The shows in Texas built up to their first appearance on TV, on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. For those of you too young to remember, during the mid-to-late-1970s, there were only two places on television to see acts performing new music—Saturday Night Live and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. The legendary writer-producer had a good feel for what might appeal to an audience that might just be sick and tired of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, the constant loop of Zep that was being played on the “edgier” rock radio stations, and the thump-thump-thump of disco. Kirshner put it quite well in his introduction: “Many people are saying that punk rock could be a wave here in America. We’ll let you judge for yourselves.” Given the evidence on this DVD, a lot of people watching late-night television on August 9, 1977, did judge. Unfortunately, too many of them voted “Nay” and went back to their safe, secure Hotel Californias, where the only scary thing was no one having a supply of your favorite vintage. Honestly, it wasn’t the Ramones’ fault. They did their best, providing a high-energy set that fulfilled a lot of their early promise. Maybe it was just too high-energy after years of Zep’s faux-English-mysticism and an endless parade of cocaine cowboys and cowgirls with their acoustic guitars…

…actually, I think I should clarify where I’m coming from. I still love the Eagles to death. I spent a good portion of an evening a week ago listening to mid-’70s Joni Mitchell. I think Jackson Browne is one of the greatest post-Lennon-McCartney songwriters around. I don’t hate that music that I’m damning. But the potential was there for a high-energy alternative, and the Ramones were the best shot at getting it to the public. The failure to do so, thanks in no small part to the Sex Pistols’ disastrous US tour a few months later, is a regret that needs a catharsis once in a while. So if I rag on those guys, it’s out of love, on both sides of the divide.

One consequence of the TV appearance was that the Ramones discovered the power of television. They ended up shooting a few proto-music videos in New York in September 1977 in anticipation of their soon-to-be-released third album, Rocket to Russia. One of the few stage attributes that Joey hadn’t mastered at this point was lip-synching to a pre-recorded backing track. There are a few notable slip-ups in these very ’70s videos. However, there was no outlet in the US to play them, and wouldn’t be for nearly four more years.

In terms of Punk, the year 1977, that oft-prophesied year, was rung in by The Clash at the Roxy and led out by the Ramones at the Rainbow (the Roxy by this time having closed and the Vortex not of sufficient size for a Ramones concert in London). If you have It’s Alive (the album, released in 1979), you have this concert already. However, the video is nicely remastered and is worth another look.

Disk 1 also contains some nice extras, including some actual videos and a bunch of interviews with the group and their manager at the time, Danny Fields. There’s a wonderful slice-of-life montage shot during their first tour of Argentina, and a great interview with Joey and performance on Swedish television where the presenter is obviously clueless about who these guys are. It’s capped off by a slightly embarassing appearance on Sha Na Na. The musical parts of these appearances are contained on Disk 2.

Disk 2 kicks off with eleven tracks recorded for a TV show in Bremen, Germany, in September 1978. By this point, the Sex Pistols’ break-up had done its damage in regard to Punk’s image in America, and the Ramones were finding the climate overseas a little more to their liking. There, they could put on the mantle of stardom that America had denied them. In fact, foreign television provides a good portion of Disk 2’s footage. Arturo Vega’s US Seal backdrop was by now a familiar prop and was quickly slapped on the band’s T-shirts (in fact, try to find a Ramones T-shirt that DOESN’T have the “Hey Ho, Let’s Go” seal). Marky had replaced Tommy on drums by this point. Marky (and Richie, for that matter) was a more powerful drummer than Tommy was, although Tommy’s finesse and unerring sense of timing made up for that. But by this point, the Ramones needed that power.

However, they’d also developed an unerring sense as to what their audience wanted and when it was appropriate to pull out that power. Witness their two appearances on the BBC nine days apart collected here. On Top of the Pops, the group toned it down for the less-hardcore BBC1 audience. On The Old Dead Squirrel Test… sorry, The Old Grey Whistle Test, they let it rip for the more hardcore audience that watched that show. The differences in their performances of “Don’t Come Close” are almost as extreme as the Ramones and a Ramones tribute band.

Their next trip to England was after the release of End of the Century, their terrific album produced by Phil Spector, in 1980, and was done to promote that album and their appearance in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. This collection only separates the two appearances two years apart with footage of a couple of concerts in California in 1978 and 1979. The difference between the two sets of appearances, other than the obvious answer of “two years”, is that the Ramones Stance was now fully established. Johnny and Dee Dee are virtually immobile, legs apart, flanking Joey, who’s also virtually a statue. The tableau would eventually become not only emblematic, but iconic, but witnessing it in close proximity to the Ramones of 1978, it’s a little bit shocking and disconcerting. It’s also a little disconcerting to hear “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?” without Spector’s flourishes, and it makes you realize that Spector’s additions here were a good thing. Maybe we need a fair judgment on this. Say, get Tommy into the studio with the masters and have him do an End of the Century… Naked. That need becomes a necessity by witnessing the Top of the Pops footage of “Baby, I Love You”, complete with string section. The Ramones, accompanied by a string section, on a lip-synch program, singing a Ronettes cover produced by the same guy who wrote and produced it the first time around. If anyone in CBGBs four years earlier had seen that as a vision of the future…

Appearances on Swedish television (see above) and Spanish television lead into nine tracks from the Ramones’ appearance at the US Festival in 1982. You know, that was supposed to be my generation’s Woodstock. To quote Mistah Lydon, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” My generation lost out on all the good music, all the good drugs and all the good festivals, and we were too late for the dot-com craziness. But enough of my generation getting boned. What is up during this performance in re Joey attempting to sound like Elvis Costello? And wearing lipstick and a fuscia shirt under his black leather? No fuscia, no fuscia, no fuscia for you, Joey. Honestly, we weren’t all like this back in the early ’80s, folks. I never owned a skinny tie or an ill-fitting suit, and only rarely wore make-up. That being said, the performance is as dynamic as the Ramones ever were in the last fifteen years of their lifespan. Joey had mastered the ability to communicate everything while doing virtually nothing, and Johnny and Dee Dee were at the tops of their game. They’d also learned how to demonstrate their complete unconcern with “inappropriate” songs. They never had any trouble playing “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World” in Germany, for instance, and they pull that trick out in the other direction at the US Festival, playing “Beat on the Brat” in the middle of Peace And Love In The Land Of Fruits And Nuts, or playing “Chinese Rocks” to an audience of dancing tan-hardbodies of indeterminate gender and impeccable bodily habits. That’s one reason I love this group to pieces.

After the US Festival, it’s fast-forward to 1985 and yet another appearance on The Old Dead Squirrel Test, with Dee Dee handling vocals on “Wart Hog” and Richie on drums and backing vocals. Really strange to see a Ramones video that doesn’t focus on Joey. However, these two performances are worth it. Richie had made an immediate impact on the group, revitalizing them for Too Tough to Die, one of their greatest albums. However, they couldn’t capitalize on it, and sunk back into the old routine. Seven tracks from Argentina in 1987 are next on the list, and they’re Dee Dee’s real final hurrah with the group. That sad thought is made up with an incendiary performance of “Mama’s Boy” for consolation (the one on The Old Dead Squirrel Test was said to be better, but the BBC couldn’t find it). Eight tracks from a 1988 festival in Finland display a visibly-aged Dee Dee, descending into his personal quest for Chinese Rocks. However, Marky’s back on drums after sobering up, but that’s small consolation.

Seven numbers from a 1992 show in Milan provide us with our introduction to C. J. and provide us with visual record of their tradition closing number on “Pinhead”, with the sign and the dancing retard in full effect. The band still sounds great, but you can tell that it’s starting to end. Closure is provided with yet another Top of the Pops performance, this time of “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, the lead track from their final studio album, Adios Amigos. Almost ironic, or at the very least sardonic. It is comforting to know that Joey never was able to master lip-synching, though. But this collection had to end on a live show recording, and the three numbers from a 1996 concert in Argentina end off the collection on a high note. The DVD compilers purposely put “Blitzkrieg Bop” as the final track of the collection, and, yes, it’s appropriate. Then again, I’m a sucker for full circles.

Seeing the Ramones live was almost a rite of passage for my generation. Seeing this footage brings back some great memories for me. But for those younger than I, who’ve been denied this experience, this collection will have to do. Does it do the job? Absolutely. It strives for as much authenticity as possible, with Tommy acting as the collection’s musical director and production people who obviously love the Ramones and what they stood for. If you weren’t there, though, just do me a favor. Don’t play it in Dolby 5.1. Turn the bass on your equipment as loud as it can go. Turn up the volume. Get about twenty of your favorite friends who know how to slam-dance properly to watch it with you (and for true authenticity, don’t have them bathe for a week beforehand). Then, and only then, will you be prepared to dodge dancing pinheads. At the end, if everything’s gone right, there’s only one thing you’ll be able to say: “Hey, ho, let’s go.”